Notes from the Search

We have been interviewing and it’s been quite exhausting. But, the process reveals more about the colleagues with whom I interact in regards to the search than it does about the candidates.

My school is a large and reputable public school and the department ranks about 15th in the discipline. We are no MIT or Stanford, but we are nothing to sneeze at, so I think it makes sense to look for a candidate who actually wants to come here, as opposed to someone who is settling for us. No one knows what tomorrow brings, but I want a candidate who, at the time of signing the contract with us, is genuinely excited about joining the department and enthusiastic about all the years of hard work and collaborations ahead.

I don’t want a candidate who is taking this offer because we were the safety school and they didn’t get any offers from any of the several schools where they also interviewed, all located in a specific, widely desirable part of the country far from here. This candidate will likely be out of here before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” because they never actually wanted to be here anyway.

One straw-man counter-argument that was raised is why would you want someone who can’t leave? You want someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want.

I don’t want someone who can’t leave. I want someone who can but doesn’t want to leave, at least not before the ink dries on the contract. Yes, I want us to hire someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want, and who has multiple offers, but who actually chooses to be here. I don’t want us to hire someone whom no one else wants; however, I also don’t want someone (no matter how good they seem) who feels that we are beneath their level and who will be looking for the first chance to upgrade.

Signing that tenure-track contract is like getting married — you better be enthusiastic about it on your wedding day, otherwise what’s the point? Sure, people “get divorced” from their institutions and move on, but if you don’t actually want to be doing it from the get-go, better not do it at all.  Start-ups cost money, searches require energy and time. I know that the loss of each faculty member due to moving or retirement disrupts the department. I don’t like the attitude that we should be grateful to get the “best possible person” if even for a few years. That argument is based on a fallacy that there is such a thing as “The One Best Possible Person”; there are plenty of very good and excellent people who would do great if given the chance.  I don’t want someone who will be entirely focused on getting out of here from day 1, I cannot imagine such a person would be a very good colleague or collaborator or contributor to the department.

————-

Another interesting issue came up. We have a candidate who is fairly polished, but the past work is not particularly original. However, the candidate does give off the same vibe as one of our best-funded people, so I am confident the candidate will be  be successful in the game of schmoozing with program managers. Another candidate is less polished but much more creative and intellectually unique. Some people have raised concerns that the latter candidate might not be successful in talking to grant managers.

Look, I am not deluded, I fully understand that you cannot do science without money. But I really don’t understand when the ability to sell, and sell hard, became the most important criterion in recruitment. I would like to think that a person who has interesting and varied ideas and is not a douche could be trained to write grants, alone and with collaborators. I don’t know that you can actually train someone to become original or creative. Are we supposed to do the best science, and raise the money to support it, or are we supposed to raise the money, regardless of what it’s for?

————-

Bias rears its ugly head. People are really, really drawn to the candidates to whom they are very similar.

  • For several searches in a row, a colleague always favors a candidate from the same country of origin, even when others in-area unanimously favor someone else. (That same colleague also collaborates only with compatriots and only brings in students from the same country. This cannot be a good thing.)
  • Some colleagues will penalize a candidate for having a presentation style and general demeanor different from their own; we have a subarea that is starting to look like it’s populated by clones or, at the very least, siblings.
  • Chubby candidates seem to fare worse than thin ones; I wish it weren’t true, but it is. No matter how well they present, they are never perceived to be quite as polished as the very thin ones, especially by the very thin and polished members of the faculty. This makes me want to eat a cookie.

15 comments

  1. This is somewhat strange to hear from my position as a postdoc at a similarly-ranked university. How many people are really viewing, say, UCSD, Penn, and Johns Hopkins solely as safeties? Maybe I have not met these candidates because they are all at Harvard [I believe four of seven of our most recent interviewees were from Harvard]. This, of course, may be the problem – a lot of schools chasing a few “top” candidates.

  2. yup. same thing here. The problem is that the entire department starts going down an ugly path because they get into clicks that only will hire “their” type people, then “they” have a stronger voting block/preference for the next hire and so on. Pretty soon you work with a bunch of asshole clones.

  3. Ugh, I was privy to a search recently wherein there was a chance that the committee would not offer to candidate #1 who was freaking awesome, a great fit, and had multiple reasons for specifically wanting to come to the institution in question (hence was likely to say yes) because “oh they are desperate to come here, we can leave them hanging while we wait to see if candidate #2 says no.” I guess they were afraid that candidate #2 would be snatched up by someone else whereas candidate #1 could be left hanging forever because they had fewer other interviews…

    I was like… this is stupid… nail down the sure, awesome, enthusiastic one who really really wants to come. Then in the off-chance they say no, invite the other one!

  4. I am just going through a diversity workshop at my U to be able to be part of a search committee. So, interesting to hear what kind of bias comes up. Btw, hilarious the comment on the cookie! 🙂

  5. I agree that you want to hire someone that is enthusiastic about working in your department, maybe has several offers but chooses your university. My question for you is, that if this person works hard, is a good colleague, publishes collaborative papers and is in general successful, but gets a fantastic job offer, after how many years could this person leave without you feeling that this person didn’t really want to be in your department.

  6. Well, if you get a really fantastic offer, you should take it. Do what’s best for you. Your colleagues, on the other hand, have the right to be grouchy about your departure.
    You can’t please everyone.

  7. “Chubby candidates seem to fare worse than thin ones”
    Woww ! I never really thought about it (may be coz I am thin) but this is ridiculous. I guess the thinking goes as if they cant really take care of their body they cant be taking care of other stuff?

    I know a lot of chubby people who are extremely intelligent hardworking and can crank papers and grants.

  8. I guess the thinking goes as if they cant really take care of their body they cant be taking care of other stuff?

    Yeah, it’s the issue of control. There is a pretty common type of control-freak professor who doesn’t respond well to chubby (or any manifestation that one may not be entirely “in control”).

  9. This chubby thing is ridiculous! I’m overweight, but not by much. Still, maybe this is why I only got one offer after many interviews, despite getting really good vibes from a lot of places. This is really bad for Mongoloid types from central asia as well, because we have round faces so anything above ‘thin’ and we start looking ‘chubby’ in America. Grrrr….. this makes me so angry. This is the first time I heard about it, and it makes me want to curse a judgmental thin person. Self-control issues my ass! We’ll see how well you do when you’re 60 and catch a bad flu that makes you lose 10 kilos. Meanwhile, I’ll be living till 90, losers.

  10. Getting one offer after many interviews is considered a very good result in the bio fields. I know top-ranked research groups in which no postdocs even got interviews one year, and getting a job offer—any job offer—was a major success. Don’t attribute getting only one offer after many interviews to discrimination, unless you have some stronger evidence.

    We had one position open this year, a couple hundred applicants, and 6 interviews. The odds are not good for any individual applicant.

    Note: I’m not claiming there is no discrimination against chubby people—there probably is, but it takes careful statistical analysis or controlled experiments to prove it, unless you have direct evidence from the statements of those making the decision. This is why discrimination lawsuits nearly always have to be class action—it is really hard to prove discrimination in single cases, as there are too many confounding variables.

  11. “Note: I’m not claiming there is no discrimination against chubby people—there probably is, but it takes careful statistical analysis or controlled experiments to prove it, unless you have direct evidence from the statements of those making the decision.”

    Well the only evidence I have is this post on this blog from a professor involved in searches. Obviously I don’t have any direct evidence for my particular places that I interviewed at. And I would assume that this discrimination would be subconscious, except for that jerk professor mentioned in the comments earlier who thinks it’s a lack of self-control issue that spills over to your performance in other fields.

    I don’t have any illusions that this can be proved and/or stopped, but it’s true that better looking people get higher pay and female teachers who are not thin are not taken as seriously by their students (both studies that were done and published). I would have thought that hiring committees at universities would try to consciously control for biases more than others.

  12. anonymous said “I would have thought that hiring committees at universities would try to consciously control for biases more than others.” They do—at least, the ones I’ve been on have made a deliberate effort to compensate for known biases, making sure that women and minorities are not overlooked in the initial screening, that extra outreach is done to enrich the pool for women and minorities (a big problem in computational fields), and that evaluation of the interviewees looks at the quality of the research and potential for teaching.

    Despite that, our department is currently only 20% female, and our interviews this year were only 33% female—I wasn’t on the recruiting committee this year, and didn’t see the entire pool, but it was probably only 10–20% female, based on prior years experience.

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